Yale crew at old boathouse, circa 1915

Recognized as America’s longest-running intercollegiate athletic event, the Harvard-Yale Regatta has been rowed on the Thames River between New London and Gales Ferry since 1878. An unusual four-mile course, it drew some 25,000 spectators for the inaugural event.

In the beginning, Yale crews boarded at the home of Latham Brown, near the ferry landing. Charles Stoddard hosted the Harvard varsity at his Italianate farmhouse by Long Cove, while the freshmen stayed with Capt. Molthrop at what is now Erickson Park. Yale later acquired Latham Brown’s property, while Harvard constructed Red Top Cottage and a boat house on the shore, before purchasing the Brown farm at Brown’s Crossing in 1930.

For many years, the Thames was the place to be for collegiate rowing. Cornell, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania all raced here, but only Harvard and Yale remain. President Theodore Roosevelt attended the 50th anniversary regatta in 1902, and 1911 saw the first appearance of an airplane over the course, piloted by noted aviator H.W. Atwood, who had set a record flight from New York to Boston in two hours and 12 minutes, an eon in today’s terms. By 1925, the spectator crowd had grown to some 100,000 people, a 500-yacht spectator fleet lay at anchor and observation trains followed the crews, one on each side of the river.

The year 1934 again hosted a presidential visit, as Franklin Roosevelt, a Harvard alum, watched his son, Franklin, Jr., row with his alma mater’s varsity crew. Alas, Yale swept all the races. The regatta was suspended during World War II, and the 1946 race was held on the Charles River in Boston. The crews returned to the Thames in 1947, when the new Gold Star Bridge, completed during the war, became the southern starting or finishing line. (The direction of the race varies, depending on the tides and current at race time.) Suspended again during COVID, the Harvard-Yale Regatta resumed in 2022. This year’s race will take place on June 10, 2023. In the fortnight leading up to the race, Gales Ferry village will again be alive with rowers in daily practice on the water.

Harvard crew at original Red Top and boathouse

Spectator fleet at the finish line in 1905

Over the years, the Harvard Crimson crews have significantly out-rowed the Yale Bulldogs, 95-58 for varsity races, 77-40 for second varsity and 75-3940 for freshmen (the 2016 varsity race was declared to have “no result”). The victors always leave their mark: at race’s end a rock on the opposite shore is painted in the victor’s colors, red for Harvard, blue for Yale.

Written by Kit Foster, Ledyard Town Historian

Photos from Ledyard Historical Society Archives